About 1,700 students, 39 toilets and a brief 10-minute break before an important exam. Those were the circumstances which led to a deadly stampede at a primary school in Puyang in Henan province last week.
The accident, which killed one child and injured 20, has tapped into a deep well of concern over safety in Chinese schools, which have been embroiled in a number of scandals in recent years.
“What is wrong with our schools?” asked one angry netizen in the wake of the Henan crush. “Shouldn’t they be the safest places in the country?”
Roughly 170 million Chinese children go to school every day. Education is a major priority for Chinese parents and accordingly almost 100% of school age children attend school. Yet increasingly their safety is a source of concern. In the last few years’ educational institutions have been at the centre of scandals which have involved rape, shoddy construction, physical abuse, drugging and rotten food.
The most recent tragedy in Henan was largely caused by overcrowding.
Puyang is small provincial town, the type which is growing very rapidly as China urbanises.
The Third Experimental Primary school, the site of the accident, had close to a hundred students per class, more than double the legal limit. At 8.20am last Wednesday teachers gave pupils a short break ahead of their monthly Chinese exam. There were no toilets on the third floor of the school, so students surged down the stairwell to get to the bathrooms on the floor below.
Someone tripped and others were pushed on top of the falling students.
“The cause of the stampede was a short break in which students were focused on getting to the bathroom” the Puyang government said on its website. The ratio of bathrooms was one to 45 students, nearly four times lower than the recommended ratio of one to 13.
The school is now closed while toilets are added and stairwells are widened. The principal has also been sacked. Yet this response has done little to assuage fears among Chinese parents, many of whom only have one child (as a result of the One-Child Policy). “Every day I send my son to school and every day I pray he comes back safely,” said one mother on Sina Weibo last week.
And paying for private education is no guarantee of safety either. Last April the Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu hit the headlines when children at its new campus began to develop rashes, coughs and headaches (see WiC322). It later transpired the school was built close to the site of three former fertiliser factories and that the soil contained dangerous levels of chlorobenzene, mercury and lead.
Last week 10 children from a kindergarten in Dongguan were hospitalised with slow heart rates and drowsiness after a teaching assistant name Yang gave them anti-psychotic drugs because he was furious about not getting a pay rise, the Beijing News reported.
In 2014 kindergartens in three northern provinces were found to be secretly administering drugs that were supposed to boost their students’ immune systems – but without telling parents. After that the government ordered a spate of drugs test across the country.
Sexual abuse is also a danger, especially in rural areas where children are left with relatives and neighbours when their parents go off to work in cities.
In 2015 a teacher from a rural part of Gansu was executed for raping 26 underage students.
This week the Chinese media has once again been full of calls to improve safety at schools. “Children are the future; every child is the responsibility of the nation… Campus safety cannot be an empty promise,” proclaimed the Global Times.
“It’s time to stop turning a blind eye,” added the People’s Daily.
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